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City Driving & Parking

This page last updated February 19, 2013

German cities, like most major European and world cities, are old and congested.  Driving in these cities is generally more of a hassle than a necessity, especially with the excellent public transportation available.  Still, there may be times when you want or need a car in town, or just got lost leaving the airport and ended-up in downtown Berlin, so here's some things to know and keep in mind regarding driving and parking in German cities.


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Driving

The central parts of most German towns and cities feature a lovely system of narrow, disjointed, and often one-way streets lined and clogged with cars.  You may find yourself feeling like a rat trapped in a maze.  A recent study determined that the average German spends 65 hours a year stuck in traffic or waiting at traffic lights.  Having said that, I can say that driving in town, even "downtown", usually isn't too bad.  After the war, many German cities rebuilt their downtown districts and designed them to make automobile navigation a little easier.  If you have experience driving in dense urban areas, you should manage fine in most German cities.

Berlin residential street

Berlin residential street

Of course, the best advice is to get a good city map, study it, and make sure you know where you're going before you head out.  Directional and guide signs may be hard to spot in the urban clutter, so be sure to keep an eye peeled for them (having a passenger on the look out can be especially helpful.)

Another piece of advice I would offer is this: park your car somewhere convenient and use public transportation to reach your final destination.  This may save you a considerable amount of time, money, and cursing.  You'll find many German cities have outlying park and ride (P+R Anlage) locations for this purpose.

Pay close attention to traffic signs and signals.  Many Germans describe their streetscape as a "sign forest" (Schilderwald) due to the abundance of traffic signs.  Be especially on lookout for for Do not enter and One-way signs-- miss one of these and you might become the new hood ornament on a delivery truck.  Traffic signals are usually easy to see, but sometimes right-of-way signs may be difficult to spot.  Also, look closely for parking or no parking signs before you park on the street to make sure that you may legally park there (more about this in the next section.)  Especially watch for the many hidden driveways marked with obscure "Ausfahrt freihalten!" ("do not block the exit") signs or you may return to find that the police have performed their magic and made your car disappear.  Some money will have to disappear from your wallet to make the car reappear.

Another sign to watch for is the Bus lane sign-- this sign marks a bus lane.  You'll find these along some major boulevards in the larger cities.  You may use this lane only if you're turning right, and you must not enter the lane until just before you make your turn.  Taxis are often allowed to use this lane as well.

Keep a sharp eye out for unmarked intersections, especially in residential areas, and yield the right-of-way to traffic approaching from the right.

German motorists are rather "trigger-happy" when it comes to green lights.  Many drivers are already entering the intersection when the signal turns green, so be prepared to go or expect some cranky honking from the guy behind you just mere microseconds after the green comes on.

Typical town road

Typical town road

To avoid the one-way maze, use larger two-way avenues and boulevards to get as close to your destination as possible, then use the one-ways as needed to finish the job.  If you get lost in the one-way rat trap, be warned that a couple of right turns will most likely put you in France instead of back where you started.

You would think that the Germans, with their collective obsessive/compulsive disorder, would have something as simple as house numbering organized to a fault.  Instead, you have to consume a couple of liters of beer before it makes any sense.  Houses are often numbered up one side of the street then back down the other.  When more houses were built along the same street, they repeated the process with the new houses.  So on the four corners of a single intersection, you could have house numbers 20, 21, 40, and 110. 

With house numbering in disarray, it's no surprise that street names are as well.  A street can change names anywhere it wants to (even in the middle of the block), and each name is guaranteed to be longer and just as irrelevant as the last one.  Helping to add syllables is the fact that attached to each name is a suffix denoting the kind of roadway.  For instance, Strasse or Straße is "street" and Weg is "lane" or "way".  However, Allee is not "alley", but rather "boulevard" or "avenue"; gasse is "alley."  There are others, but those are the usual suspects.

Many of the largest German cities have multi-level intersections in their central areas.  You'll often find that through traffic passes in a tunnel under major signalized intersections.  In some of the busiest places, there may be extensive underground trafficways.  Again, make sure you study a good city map before you start out.

Congestion in German cities is no better or worse than other European and world cities.  Rush hours are generally 7.00-9.00 and 16.00-18.00 on weekdays.  In some of the trendy nightlife districts, you may find yourself staring at brake lights until well after 23.00.  Popular shopping areas will usually be congested and parking particularly hard to come by on Saturdays.

Definitely be on the watch for pedestrians.  They always have the right-of-way in zebra-marked crosswalks, but oftentimes they'll dart-out between cars and other locations.  In residential areas, be on the lookout for children playing near streets-- you're required by law to pass by them at the slowest speed possible.  The same holds true if a handicapped or elderly person is in or near the street.

Basically, driving in cities in Germany involves the same skill, patience, and sense of humor as driving in cities in the US and elsewhere.  Use common sense and pay attention and you should do fine.


Parking

Your biggest problem may not be navigating cities, but finding someplace to (legally) stash your vehicle reasonably close to your destination.  In most German cities, you'll have a good selection of parking facilities.  There is the ubiquitous on-street parking as well as off-street parking lots (Parkplatz), above-ground garages (Parkhaus), and underground garages (Tiefgarage).  Most large cities have extensive parking facilities, and parking maps are usually available from the tourist information offices.  Unfortunately, there are often not enough spaces to go around, and you may have to drive around a little while before you find a place, all the while feeling like the losing participant in a round of musical chairs.  Still, except on the busiest days and during the peak times, you should be able to find a place within a reasonable amount of time.  Costs for parking in Germany are a little on the pricey side.

On-street parking
Parking on the street is the most common means of parking in Germany.  Unless specifically prohibited by a sign or general regulation, on-street parking is usually permitted everywhere (see the parking section of the road rules page for laws regarding on-street parking).  The Parking sign along the street specifically indicates where such parking is permitted, although when used it is usually accompanied by additional signs indicating when parking is permitted, who is permitted to park, or requiring the use of a parking permit, voucher, or disc.  Here are some examples:

Sign 314
Sign 314
Sign 314
Parking only with a parking disc
You may only park for the length of time indicated (e.g. 2 hours).
Parking requires purchase of a parking voucher (Parkschein) Parking only for residents with indicated permit number

Note that a new parking sign was introduced in 2009:   This sign marks the entrance to a parking management area.  Parking is allowed on all streets in the area (unless otherwise posted) with the use of a parking disc or voucher as indicated by a supplemental sign until a sign is reached.

There are many more signs related to parking on the German traffic signs page (page 2) as well as additional vocabulary used on signs.

As noted above, on-street may require you to use a parking voucher, parking disc, or parking meter.  Here are directions on the use of each:

  • Parking vouchers (Parkschein) ("pay & display"): The sign "mit Parkschein" requires you to purchase a parking voucher before leaving your vehicle.  These are obtained from a nearby machine (Parkscheinautomat)-- look for tall signs marking the location of these, usually at the ends of the block or mid-block.  The operation of these machines varies, but instructions (usually with pictures) are clearly posted on the front.  Generally, you'll want to locate the parking rates (Parkgebühr) on the front of the machine.  Determine how much time you'll need, then deposit the corresponding amount.  The display will indicate how many minutes or the expiration time the amount you've inserted will buy.  On some machines, you can press the "+" or "-" buttons to add or subtract time from that amount.  If you add time, the machine will indicate how much additional money to feed it.  Once you've selected and paid for the time you'll need, press the designated "finish" button (often green) and the machine will dispense a small ticket (voucher) as well as any change.  Return to your vehicle and place the voucher on the dashboard where it may be easily read from the outside.  You must return to your vehicle before the expiration time shown on the voucher.  If the nearest voucher machine is out of order, you should use another one in the same area; you will usually find another one across the street, at the other end of the block, or around the corner.  If you cannot locate another machine, use a parking disc instead (see below); you can then stay up to the maximum length of time shown on the machine or signs.  Some areas only require you to use a parking vouchers during certain times; check the signs or schedule on the machine.  Oftentimes, the machines will shut off when parking vouchers are not required, but push the buttons to be sure it's not just taking a nap.

Parking voucher machineParking voucher machine

Two varieties of parking voucher machines

  • Parking discs (Parkscheibe): A parking disc is a blue cardboard or plastic card with an adjustable time dial.  You can obtain these for free or nominal cost from most gas stations, newsstands, tobacco shops, and police stations.  Rental cars should already have them (if yours doesn't, get one from the agent before leaving with the car.)  Signs indicating that you must use a parking disc will also indicate the length of time you can park.  Turn the dial so that the arrow points to the time of your arrival, rounded-up to the next half hour.  For example, if you arrive at 10:40, set the disc for 11:00.  Then place the disc on your dashboard.  You must return to your vehicle within the indicated time period.  So, for instance, if you arrived at 10:40 and the signs said that you could park for 2 hours with a parking disc, you would set your disc for 11:00 and you would have to return to your vehicle by 13:00 (1:00pm).  As with many things in Germany, this mostly works on the honor system, but spot checks are conducted.  Many areas only require you to use a parking disc during certain times; be sure to check the signs.  Outside of those times, you can usually park as long as you want, but double-check for other signs showing some other restriction.


Parking disc

Parking disc
 

  • Parking meters (Parkuhr): Parking meters are not very common in Germany, and rapidly becoming even less so.  If you do stumble upon one, you'll see that they work just like their US counterparts: deposit your money, look and see how much time the meter shows, and return to your vehicle before the time expires.  In the event of a defective meter, you must use a parking disc.  You may then park up to the maximum time normally permitted at that location (i.e. the maximum time shown on the meter.)

Violations
Parking fines generally range from €5-25 and if you are obstructing traffic or a driveway, your vehicle will almost surely be towed, and quite quickly. In such an event, call the police to settle the situation.

Parking lots and garages
Besides indicating where parking is permitted on the street, the Parking sign also gives directions to off-street parking facilities.  Directions to garages are usually indicated by Parking garage signs.  In many larger cities and towns, there are electronic signs indicating which lots and garages are available (Frei) or full (Besetzt), or showing the number of available spaces.  Parking facilities are often named or numbered to assist you in finding them (e.g. lot  P1, garage P2, etc.)

Parking availability sign

Parking availability sign

Very few lots allow you to park for free.  The ones that do usually require you to use a parking disc (see above).  The rest require payment, and you'll be hard-pressed to find a lot or garage with an attendant.  While some lots use parking vouchers (see above), most use an automated centralized self-pay system.  When entering the parking lot/garage, you obtain a time-stamped ticket from the entry gate.  Park your vehicle and take this ticket with you.  When you are ready to leave, but before you actually return to your vehicle, find a parking payment machine (Kassenautomat).  These are usually located near pedestrian entrances.  Insert the ticket you received from the entry gate into the designated slot on the machine and the amount due will be displayed.  Pay the amount shown and the machine will return your ticket or dispense a new one.  If you also want a receipt, push the button marked "Quittung" immediately thereafter.  Then, return to your vehicle and exit the lot/garage.  At the exit gate, insert the ticket into the machine there and the barrier will open.  You generally have 15 minutes or so to reach the exit gate from the time you pay.  If for some reason you don't make it within this time period, go back to the payment machine and start the process again using the ticket that you received from the previous payment.

Most lots and garages are open 24 hours; however, some are not open overnight.  If you're going to be out late, make sure that the lot or garage you use will still be open when you return!

Parking payment machine

Parking payment machine



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